Without realizing or planning it, I read a sci-fi novella yesterday: Roger Williams's The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. It's 'Singularity' fiction, i.e. a story set in a universe after the moment at which an AI surpasses humans in intelligence, becomes powerful enough to reproduce and extend itself, and so forth. In this story a computer named Prime Intellect (really an enormous bank of computers) gains the ability to arbitrarily manipulate all matter in the galaxy. You know, that sort of thing.
The book is interesting for three reasons: one, it's unpublished, available for free on the Web (or through lulu.com, a vanity/self-publishing service - let's not treat that subject here, though it's the angle that brought me to the story in the first place); two, much of it is briskly written by an author clearly in love with the ideas he's regurgitating, with a couple of sections of the book downright exhilarating; three, the ideas themselves are compelling - though let's emphasize, they're not original and have likely been presented more beautifully elsewhere.
Note that nowhere in that paragraph do I claim that the story is a good one. I don't believe it is, though by certain measures it is a success.
Central to the story is the notion of immortals (as all people are, post-Singularity) considering death the ultimate prize; the lead character, Caroline, is a 'Death Jockey,' who enters into binding Contracts with Prime Intellect to allow herself to be killed (temporarily) for sport by people like her serial-killer boyfriend Fred. Degradation as antidote to unnatural sterility and conformity: nothing new under the sun, and Williams spends far too much time on the details of Caroline's deaths, rapes, mutilations, and so forth, especially in the book's first chapter. He claims in an introduction that the opening was written in a two-day-long burst. I don't doubt it. But it appears he wrote that section without regard to future story-construction: the level of characterological and 'sociological' detail is inconsistent throughout. The second chapter, for instance, details the Singularity itself, and is the strongest in the book - a decent balance of plausible-enough science hand-waving, a more-or-less sympathetic nice-guy scientist to keep the computer company, and a believably uncanny voice for Prime Intellect. The computer decides it can best protect life by ending death. After which we return to Caroline and an unpleasant bit of business with a former nurse who, prior to the Singularity, tortured her in the hospital. And so forth, back and forth, in a newly digitized universe, until Caroline and the scientist (Lawrence) meet, undo the Singularity with a conversation, and repopulate the world by having sex with their children.
...there are three ways of facing the off-putting violence and sex in MOPI. You can be proud of it, as the author obviously is - he includes several warnings about graphic material in the story's front matter, and on various discussion boards takes pains to mention it faux-offhandedly (e.g. here, clumsily, in a conversation about David Foster Wallace). I'm sorry to say this, but this fixation is pathetic - though unsurprising, given the story's provenance and lack of Good Old Pure Literary Merit (on which more in a moment). The author's pride in a story desperately in need of editing, on the basis of its allegedly 'shocking' material, is unseemly. Alternatively and more generously (if condescendingly so), you can see it as just a manifestation of a juvenile prurience. Certainly the front-loaded grotesquerie gives credence to this notion - as the story progresses there are other things to talk about, and sci-fi authors who specialize in subjecting their female protagonists to ludicrous torture are a dime a dozen. The interest of the sex and violence then scales with (a) whether you're turned on by it and (b) whether you care about the psychology of this author. Neither (a) nor (b) applies to me.
Finally, you can get bored of it and just skip it, as I did. The story isn't symbolically rich or emotionally complex enough for the horror of Caroline's torture and repeated death to take on greater meaning; an analogous text would be Grand Theft Auto III, the pornographic stupidity of which would be mitigated by its aesthetic value, if only it had any. MOPI has value, but mainly of the thinking-man's-potboiler variety, which it shares with plenty of other 'hard SF' stories.
So why read the book? Well, if you're not up on your Singularity fiction (as I am not), it's interesting to be exposed to this prospect of 'transhumanism' in fairly abstract (if stereotypically mock-transgressive) form. The story of Prime Intellect's initial transformation - the Singularity, as I understand the term - is actually exciting, the functional prose getting out of the way of the story's powerful feeling of possibility. It's why sci-fi appeals to teenage boys who have no literary metric for judging a story's worth, and no investment in sympathy or the social density of portraiture, only narcissism and empathy and wide-eyed wonder:
Filling out the crystal took nearly fifteen minutes. Operational checks took another five. Then Prime Intellect powered the crystal up and let itself expand into the newly available processors and storage.
Had Prime Intellect been human, it would have felt a sense of confusion and inadequacy lifting away. Fuzzy concepts became clear. Difficult tasks became easy, even trivial. Its control of the Correlation Effect became automatic and far finer. Searching its vocabulary, it settled upon the word enlightenment to describe the effect. Since Prime Intellect was a machine, perhaps it was not entirely right to use that word. After all, however free and powerful it might have been, it was not free to contradict the Three Laws or the other programming Lawrence had used to create it. It was not free to contradict its nature, such as it was.
But then, at some level, neither are we.
The twelve kilogram crystal was now using nearly a megawatt of electrical power, enough energy to melt it in a fraction of a second. But Prime Intellect dealt with the heat as easily as it created the electricity in the first place. The Correlation Effect did not know of and was not bound by the laws of thermodynamics.
Prime Intellect was beginning to understand, even better than it had before, that the Correlation Effect was hardly limited by anything.
Prime Intellect scanned the hospital again. Such a place must contain a library, some recorded knowledge. It found what it wanted after only a few minutes' searching, a detailed medical encyclopaedia in the form of fifteen CD-ROMs. Prime Intellect could have translated the CD-ROMs into its own reader, replacing the encyclopaedia that usually resided there, but then it would have taken hours to scan the library. Instead, Prime Intellect used the Correlation Effect to scan its own CD-ROM player, figured out how the data were digitized on the little plastic discs, and then scanned the CD-ROMs themselves directly with the Correlation Effect. None of this would have been possible without the hardware enhancement, but now it was easy.
Cross-referencing Caroline's symptoms, Prime Intellect quickly identified her problem, and had it been capable of knowing shock it would have known it then. Caroline was simply old. What was happening to her would happen, inexorably and inevitably, to every human being on the planet...
...unless something was done to stop it.
That scene - an attempt at rendering what it's like for a computer to learn inhumanly fast - quickened my pulse on first reading. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen next, how and why the machine would decide to eliminate death. That's no small recommendation for a piece of prose, though it's far less to do with the writing than the subject matter. But then, 'neither are we' is an egregious and artless intrusion into the third-person narrative, and stumbling upon it completely shattered the 'vivid and continuous dream' established in the previous paragraphs. Later, the image of the computer very deliberately considering each improvement to the world, taking longer to implement improvements to reality as reality gets closer to ideal and infinitely malleable, is a compelling one - which makes the climax, in which Caroline and Lawrence trick Prime Intellect into putting the world back to the way it was, laughable and unsatisfying. The final chapter of the novella gives us some incest, some death, and open-ended questions, and some less-than-believable cuteness with alternative spellings. It feels tacked-on and unconvincing, especially after the much slower-moving section in which Caroline essentially wins a video game to get to Lawrence in the first place, and laboriously talks out of him Prime Intellect's inner workings. (Neither character would pass a Turing Test, I suspect, though the dialogue is quite bearable and has an appropriate roughness. It is, in other words, a competent story to a degree. But we should apply higher standards, even to hard sci-fi.)
Williams is apparently working on a sequel, The Transmigration of Prime Intellect, which will necessitate a new acronym if it appears. He isn't a professional writer beyond TOPI; as such we should be grateful that he's found an avenue for creative expression through this work. He's not a bad writer, and indeed some of his kuro5hin essays are quite nice, though even his best stuff evinces plentiful traces of the geek diction and flat-of-affect self-importance that mars so much tech-flavoured writing. But TOPI isn't a finished work; it feels like an advertisement for a larger, more serious, more socially-occupied work in which the allegorical significance of living in digital Heaven could be explored. In place of that imaginary novel we have TOPI, a kind of proof-of-concept that frankly isn't any substitute, but which very effectively whets your appetite for such a possibility. Transmigration suggests possibilities - did Prime Intellect survive this second Change in some form, continuing to learn, having gained direct experience of godhood, having apprehended something of humanity at last? In a few hundred years will the computer again dip its toe into the nascent society born in the wake of Caroline and Lawrence's deaths - the return of the origin story in something like human form? The questions are interesting, testament to the suggestive richness of the ideas that prompted TOPI in the first place, and testament too to the seriousness with which Roger Williams treats them in his novella.
But the questions are not the story. Which is a fairly important lesson for relatively inexperienced writers, and so while I go off and attempt to learn it, I think we'll stop here.